Greek for the Rest of Us: The Essentials of Biblical Greek (2nd ed.), by William D. Mounce. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013, xviii + 293 pages, $29.99, paper.
The purpose of this book on beginning New Testament Greek is for the reader to come to a working knowledge of some of the basics of the subject, so that he can make better use of Bible software programs, critical commentaries, and lexicons, as well as analyze a text both in the English and Greek (though not as exhaustively as would be true for someone who took traditional courses in Greek, such as a minister would take in preparing for the ministry of the Word). I am not convinced that this object is best served by Dr. Mounce’s approach in this book, but let us begin with some very positive points about the book.
The best use of this textbook, from my point of view, would be for those who have studied New Testament Greek in the past, to have a quick and easy review. Ministers who have grown “rusty” in their use of the language would be able to return to a former facility in their exegetical skills, which may have been dulled by non-use or by being out of the ministry for a time. Those who are not ministers of the Word, nor intend to be, but who have studied New Testament Greek at some point in their education, would find this a quick and fairly easy tool to sharpen those skills and to make better use of them than ever.
Those of us who studied our Greek in the somewhat distant past (due to being born closer to World War II than to the Gulf War), will also pick up some suggestions as to a somewhat clearer understanding of the language than was true in our earlier days. For example, I had been taught that often μη (mē) with the present imperative suggested a command to stop a process already in motion. However, in the course of over forty years in which I have been translating and working with the Greek New Testament, I had observed that more often than not this did not appear to be the case, or perhaps only half of the time. Often this construction is just commanding that something not be done, without necessarily suggesting whether it is being done and needs to stop, or it is not yet being done and should not be initiated.
“For many years it was believed that μη (mē) with a present tense imperative was a prohibition to stop something currently in progress. μη (mē) with an aorist tense imperative was a prohibition to not even start an action. Although you will find this distinction throughout the commentaries, grammarians today are for the most part agreed that this distinction is invalid” (226). Such information can be very useful for those who need a “refresher” course that will help them stay abreast of some of the current conclusions by the scholars.
Mounce’s approach to helping a Bible student learn how to analyze a text is very good. By not using the language of academia, he makes wonderful suggestions that will be of great help to those who want to dig deeper into the biblical text but who do not have formal training in the language. He has exercises to help the reader learn to do this first in the English and then in the Greek. Though I question whether the average reader can actually do the Greek exercise, the exercise for the English text is great, and I believe the Christian of average intelligence can make very profitable use of this section.
However, this brings me to my concerns about the approach and object of this book. First, having examined Mounce’s more traditional method of teaching Greek on the internet, I found his more traditional approach extremely well organized and clear, and believe his traditional textbook with internet course is probably one of the very best ways for a layman to learn New Testament Greek, sufficiently to work with the Greek text in a profitable manner. The approach of Greek for the Rest of Us would not, in my opinion, work for the average layman, the audience for which the book seems to be intended primarily.
The book does not have the student learn the language from the “ground up,” as in traditional courses. The main conjugations for verbs and the declension forms for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, for example, as well as a host of other important material, are not assigned to be memorized in a logical order. Instead they are covered as “bits and pieces” introduced along the way, with the view that the reader will pick up what is necessary. At first this would mean being able to make better use of commentaries, lexicons, and Greek software, and hopefully growing into an ability to analyze the Greek text itself. The first part of this might be true to a limited degree, but I fear most average English speaking people would find it confusing and the “bits and pieces” disconnected. When it comes to analyzing the Greek text (199 ff), the average reader would not have enough information to perform this task. I would recommend a more traditional approach, though not necessarily having to attend a school in person (though that is great for those who have such an opportunity), like Mounce’s or a similar program online.
Fearing that I am just being “an old fogey,” stuck to my ways (at least the way in which I learned the Greek language), I asked my much younger son-in-law, who has a year of New Testament and Classical Greek under his belt from Covenant College, to read through the book and evaluate it for me. I tried not to give him any strong impression of my own before he read. He is not a minister, has not made extensive use of his Greek over the years, and I think appreciated the review this was for him. However, he also came to the same conclusion as I had, without collusion between us. The stated purpose of the book he questioned, because the more traditional approach, teaching the language with all its parts from “the ground up” would be less confusing. He did not believe he could have learned the language in this format, though he appreciated the good review it would give to someone who had learned the language traditionally and needed a review and challenge to help make better use of that formerly acquired knowledge.
Since there are over twenty years difference between us, our personalities are dissimilar in many ways, and he is many times more proficient with computers and other modern tools than myself, I thought this agreement as to the best use of this book was significant. At least some of us could not learn the language in this way, not even enough to significantly help us with the “tools of the trade.” We would be left confused rather than helped by the book, if we did not already know the language from a more traditional approach.
On a more positive note, Mounce has some terrific essays at the end of the book on textual criticism, translations, the choice of commentaries, etc. Though I hold to a different view of textual criticism, I found these articles extremely well written, fair to all sides, and gracious.
For those who need to sharpen their formerly acquired skills in New Testament Greek, this book is a helpful and quick read and provides a great review.
Allen Tomlinson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Merrimack, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, May 2014.